A few weeks ago, I attended an internal seminar here at the World Bank. Topic: the governance challenges in a big, complex, not -aid -dependent, and deeply corrupt country. The team working on governance in the country wanted to present ideas to the broader community in the Bank and receive feedback. It was a good and lively discussion, and you will forgive me for not going into the details. But something happened that I wanted to bring to broader attention. After the country team had presented the work they were doing, one of those asked to lead the comments was my esteemed colleague, Nick Manning, one of the most experienced public sector governance advisers anywhere.
Nick opened his remarks with this arresting image. I paraphrase him thus: Some of you I’m sure are aware of the Olympic sport of curling. You see these people with a broom sweeping the ice in front of a ball. Those who do this swear that sweeping the ice makes a difference. So, maybe what we do in these situations is like sweeping the ice to shape the path of the ball that is rolling down, and we hope it makes a difference.
I found the image brilliant, and before I made my own comments, I asked Nick for his permission to use it in a blog post. He very kindly gave me permission to do so. Nick is, of course, not responsible for what I am about to say.
According to Britannica Online Encyclopedia , curling is ‘a game similar to lawn bowls but played on ice’.
A distinctive part of the game is the use of a brush, or broom, to sweep the ice in front of the sliding stone. This is a tradition carried over from the days when curling was played outdoors on frozen lakes; it was necessary to clear the snow to provide a path for the incoming rock. Sweeping is still used today on indoor rinks because it both removes stray ice particles and smoothes the surface of the ice, thus assuring the stone a longer ride.
Now, here are the reasons why I found the image an arresting, intriguing metaphor for work on governance reform:
- The humility: a sliding stone has its own laws of motion. Translation: with governance reform, donor interventions cannot be drivers of change, although we often like to think that what we do makes a massive difference. These countries have their own laws of motion: the rules of the game, the structural factors at work, the interplay of groups and actors and so on. Those are the things that truly shape where that sliding stone is headed.
- A healthy skepticism about impact: does sweeping the ice in the path of a sliding stone make that much of a difference? Truly? Really? Truly reforming governance systems is fiendishly complex and takes time. Yet, here we are –the international development community – jetting round the world, sweeping feverishly in front of all kinds of sliding stones on all kinds of icy surfaces, hoping desperately that our efforts make some kind of difference. Often, we simply assert without proof that our efforts make a difference in order to keep bosses and evaluators happy, and so that we might avoid massive bouts of cognitive dissonance. We all need to believe that what we do counts.
The seminar we were at was discussing a big, resource rich country that is not dependent on donor aid. But just this week I had cause to look into the affairs of a small, aid-dependent, island state. For decades now, donors have been pouring resources and experts into it. Yet the politicians and the politics of the state still obey their own laws of motion. Corruption is rife and continuing; the poor, well, they remain poor. We go in with our classic reform tools: procurement reform, public financial management reform, key sector reform plans. The political leaders are experts are mimicking compliance. We back these efforts up with expertise from all the main bilateral and multilateral donor agencies. And what happens? The more things change…the more they remain the same.
Don’t get me wrong though: I believe we have to keep sweeping that ice. Why? Well, you never know…
Photo Credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit  (on Flickr)